The Measure of Mario pt.1
Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 12:37PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Genre, Mario Strikers Charged, Mechanics, Misc Design & Theory, Platformer

It all started with the brick. This small equal sided object is the degree that all the gameplay elements in Super Mario Brothers are organized by. Small Mario and most of the enemies in the game are the size of 1 brick. Big Mario stacks up to about 2 bricks. Mario's standing JUMP clears 4 bricks, while the running JUMP clears 5. Recognizing this quantified unit of measure was essential for understanding how SMB was built and why all the elements fit together like puzzle pieces.



Over a year ago I wrote the Mario Melodies series exploring the design of the original Super Mario Brothers. It was all in an effort to establish and become familiar with the concepts and language necessary to completely understand game design as a system of interconnected parts. Analyzing video games and articulating nuances of game design is hard. To make things easier, I often compare other games to the SMB model. Now that New Super Mario Brothers Wii is out, it's time to compare all 7 games. Barring Super Mario Land 1 and 2 for the Gameboy, I intend to put an end to the popular debate of how the 2D Mario platformers measure up against each other.

 Here's the line up:

  1. Super Mario Brothers
  2. Super Mario Brothers: Lost Levels
  3. Super Mario Brothers 2
  4. Super Mario Brothers 3
  5. Super Mario World
  6. New Super Mario Brothers
  7. New Super Mario Brothers Wii


First Mario's Mechanics. 

I've detailed Mario's basic mechanics throughout this blog in addition to creating this comparison chart. To sum up, all the 2D Mario games have these core mechanics. WALK. RUN. JUMP. DUCK.



 The following mechanics are not present in every 2D Mario platfomer.


Controlling Mario by using the above mechanics is what many refer to as the "feel of the game." Though these mechanics may look about the same from game to game, there are subtle differences that if ignored can throw one's entire game experience off. It's all about expectations that are learned for one game and assumed to be the same for another. This is why some of the most bitter critics of long running series are also some of the biggest fans. For some gamers, if the smallest detail like how quickly Mario skids to a stop from running is changed, it's automatically bad. 

From a critical perspective, we know that the real issue isn't that some versions of Mario's RUN or JUMP are better than others. After all, the quality of mechanics is measured by a game's level design. Considering that mechanics are primarily designed to be used to overcome challenges, a game's level design is where we must look. For a mechanic out of the context of its game is just potential. So if Mario is designed to carry over a lot of momentum when changing directions, designing levels with very small platforms and precise jumps may be deceptively difficult and counter intuitive to some experienced gamers. Looking at how all the elements work together is key.

Designing levels for a Mario game starts with creating challenges through a counterpoint between Mario, the level obstacles, and the enemy elements. Based on the player's maneuverability, the level design can shape the gameplay. For example, in SMB and SMB:LL players only have the core JUMP mechanic to move through the air. Every JUMP must be carefully made to avoid pits and emergent enemy traps. Even with the air control that Mario is famous for, Mario has fairly limited vertical options. The levels were designed around this limitation to challenge and empower players to JUMP and JUMP well.

Some have commented how the difficultly of Mario games is undermined by new mechanics. For example, the SPIN in Super Mario Galaxy can be used like a mini double jump to help players "get out of danger for free." The problem with thinking about the game in this way is that it doesn't take into account how the game creates challenges that can't be undermined with the SPIN mechanic or challenges that aren't designed around JUMPing and falling into pits in the first place. Sure, some jumps by no longer be as challenging in Galaxy as they would be in Super Mario 64, but as long as levels are designed to challenge/engage the player in some other way, there isn't a real loss to criticise.

If you're upset about the newer Mario games and the new undermining mechanics, you should know undermining design has been happening since the beginning.








With Mario's mechanics cleared up, we can move on to the bulk of this series. Level design.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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